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Mary Kirchhof


Mary KirchhofRita Anne

She sits on a couch
an old lady
With other old women and men
in a facsimile of a living room

Eyes opening and closing
Little focus beyond her
hands that intertwine
In a death grip

The nurse moves slowly, quietly
passing out meds
To the alive but not living
Always together but alone
The “I am.   You are.” gone

Yet as I touch her
a flicker
A child’s open eyed enveloping smile
deep joy! 
Not yet robbed of knowing



He's Beautiful

And when I die, and when I'm gone,
There'll be one child born
In this world to carry on,
to carry on.*

 “He’s beautiful,” my dying great aunt breathed as my newborn son lay on her pillow.
Almost three weeks early, with my life in turmoil, my first child was born.  I thought my son decided it might be calmer on the outside and made his decision known.  Now I believe he arrived to grace our family as another member left us in grace.   The full circle of life, not as a tired phrase, rather a deeply lived experience.

The only living relative of my deceased grandparents was my Great Aunt Bobby, a Roman Catholic nun.  She was mom’s closest elderly relative.  They cherished each other in a calm and present way that only women, and especially women, who have lost their mothers at young ages can.  As a great niece I loved her unreasonably for what she meant to my mother, as a living connection to the Grandmother I never knew, and as the mirthful wise woman of our family.  At ninety-three, she was critically ill and my mom believed was waiting to meet her great-great nephew.

The birth was joyous but dangerously hard so only three calls were made one to each of our parents and one to Bobby.   Joseph named after my grandfather, Bobby’s beloved brother, had safely arrived.  A few hours after the call, smiling and rejoicing in the name, she slipped into a coma.

Bobby was an enigma.  She was scared of many things in life yet as a young single woman, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago prior to World War 1.  Tiny at 4”10”, her “don’t mess with me” look was famous with us kids but not as much as her infectious whole body laugh.  It would roar out of her as it pulled her hands together and, if sitting, her feet would fly up off the floor and straight out into the room. 

A brilliant woman she rarely spoke without expanding our vocabularies and her colloquialisms became family jokes.   When my cousin wanted a special memorable gift for Bobby, she searched dozens of liquor stores unsuccessfully only to ruefully learn that Bobby’s favorite drink, Adams Ale, was water.   Kind and tolerant of others she admonished me when I was teaching pregnant ninth through twelfth grade girls in 1974, (when it was still a scandal to be single and pregnant,) to never look down on them.  She had worked with pregnant young women in the 1920’s.  Her reasoning? God, she said, understood passion and with that she winked at my current boyfriend. When she started to go blind she learned to weave so that she could be useful; this was a woman who always looked for ways to love and give back to others. 

She had always been old to me.  Sixty-four when I was born, it seemed like the wise pixie of our family would always be there.  Now, unresponsive and in a coma she was dying.  Something told me to go.  It wasn’t duty, guilt, obligation or rules.  It was something else; she was waiting, holding on.

My hesitation was brief.  Babies born early have the unsettling twitches and mewings of a not quite ready neurological system, yet he was breathing well.  With resolve I swaddled him as the nurses had shown for calming, packed the diaper bag for the first time, and set off.  Our first trip out into wide world to meet his great-great aunt would also be to say good-bye to her.

The nun’s retirement building, Bethany, is a three-story brick building sheltered by towering pines that rise beyond the roof.   Bobby and I had strolled by them on our walks.  She always greeted them with “Hello Fine Fellows” as she had watched them grow from their infancy.   My throat caught as my newborn and I passed them going to find her for what would be the last time.   Her room was empty and we walked the halls looking for her.  The baby, so tiny and frail, began to feel heavy in my arms still exhausted from birth.

A sister as old and short as Bobby sat by her bed, rosary beads silently slipping over gnarled hands. Her eyes and face gentle with concern, she cautioned that Bobby was in a coma.  Had responded to no one.  Hadn’t moved, spoken or focused for several days.   Slowly I approached the bed; Bobby was wizened almost beyond recognition.  Breath shallow, skin a deathly hue, eyes closed, and her was body still, almost beyond motionless.  Instinctively, I laid my child, my infant, not yet due to be born, on the pillow by her head.  Swaddled tight, new baby smell, he too was motionless except for his eyes that watched her face.

Gently my hand rested on her shoulder willing her to feel my love.   The words came out unrehearsed, “Aunt Bobby, it’s Mary.  I brought you Joseph, my gift from God.” 

If I hadn’t heard the gasp from Sister behind me I would now think I had dreamt or concocted it, but I didn’t.   Bobby opened her eyes and gazed at that precious child, inches from her face as he gazed back.  It was almost inaudible, barely a whisper, yet heard and transformative, love drawing from the deepest depths of the human heart and soul. 
“He’s beautiful.” 

As quickly as the moment had come it passed. Her eyes closed.  Two weeping women and a tiny newborn sat watch with her, grateful for a life full of love shared and a gift of love as her last act of life.  My Aunt Bobby died that night.

The picture of my dying aunt and newborn son on that crisp white pillow, ageless, are forever seared into my mind and heart in the place where gratitude lives.

* (c) Copyright 1966 by Tuna Fish Music, Inc. "And When I Die" (As recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears)